The accidental landlord: always view a potential buy-to-let property

Don't shell out a penny until you've viewed a potential buy-to-let
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You do hear of landlords snapping up rental properties before they have even seen them, but it's not something I'd recommend after my experience last week.

I'm not naturally cautious when buying property (I once went out for a T-shirt and came back with a flat), but if you're looking for a rental investment you need to make sure it will be easy to let and simple to maintain.

A friend of mine who has been looking for a buy-to-let in London for at least a year finally spotted what he thought was the ideal investment advertised on Rightmove: a flat in a period property next to a Tube station in Zone 2, only a 10-minute bus ride into central London.

Best of all, it appeared to be set in a lovely square — you know, one of those with a private garden in the middle where the residents hang out in the summer. On paper it seemed perfect.

Properties like this don't come on the market very often (said the estate agent) and this one had attracted several offers by the time my friend made enquiries. He was told that if he wanted to see the place he'd have to move fast, the agent was only doing viewings for another hour, after which he was going to accept the highest offer.

Unfortunately my friend was abroad, but he didn't want to miss out on what looked like a great buy so he was tempted to stick in a bid. Thankfully, he's terribly cautious when parting with hundreds of thousands of pounds, so he asked me to swing by and take a look on his behalf.

And what a disappointment it turned out to be. The location was the first big let-down. The flat wasn't actually in the square, it was on the corner of a nearby busy road. The peeling paint on the front door suggested the freeholder wasn't taking care of the place. This was confirmed by the thick layer of dust on the skirting and the dirty, frayed carpet in the tiny communal hallway. Not a great first impression for tenants.

Walking up the poky staircase, I had an odd but slightly familiar sensation. Now when had I last felt like this? Oh yes, climbing up that tower in Pisa. The whole building had dropped quite alarmingly to one side. Inside the flat was no better. Frayed carpets, grubby bathroom, ripped lino in the kitchen, peeling paint everywhere. However, what really worried me was the badly bowed ceiling complete with damp patches, both up there and on the walls, while there were cracks under some of the windows.

There was no maintenance charge, which the agent tried to push as a positive attribute."Leaseholders only pay for repairs when they crop up," I was told. But it looked as if the place had been allowed to fall into a right old state. I'm sure that in the current market, the flat would be easy to let. However, should the ceiling spring a leak — which looked a distinct possibility — or the drains get clogged, I wouldn't be confident that the freeholder would sort it out, and tenants won't put up with water dripping on their heads — or blocked sinks — for long.

I once bought a top-floor flat at a knock-down price but I couldn't let it because the ceiling leaked, the freeholder was in prison (don't ask) and the other leaseholders refused to contribute towards the repair costs.

My friend decided against putting in an offer. I think it was the right decision. You know what they say: buy in haste, repent at leisure.

Follow our accidental landlord on Twitter at @VicWhitlock

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